Bullock tightens coronavirus restrictions

Daily Inter Lake | November 18, 2020 12:55 AM

Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said Tuesday he is expanding a statewide mask mandate and tightening restrictions on businesses and public gatherings as cases of COVID-19 continue to surge during the holiday season.

Bullock also announced the state will use $75 million of its remaining federal coronavirus relief funds to help businesses impacted by the new restrictions, and $25 million of those funds will be used to provide an additional $200 a week in unemployment benefits to Montanans, starting next week and ending Dec. 19. The Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Recovery Act that Congress passed in March requires that federal assistance be spent by the end of the year.

"These are decisions that I don't take lightly, yet they are a necessity," Bullock said during a call with reporters. "We're all sick of this virus. We all have to collectively recognize that this virus won't stop spreading through our communities at any time soon, unless we take active steps to stop its spread. Responsibility for doing that rests with each and every one of us."

The governor's latest directive will take effect Friday, requiring people across Montana, including in all K-12 schools, to wear face coverings in most situations. Previous directives from July and August imposed the mask mandate only in counties with four or more confirmed cases of COVID-19.

The new directive also will require restaurants, bars, breweries, distilleries and casinos to operate at no more than 50% capacity and close no later than 10 p.m. Establishments won't be allowed to seat more than six people at a table, and social distancing between tables still will be required.

Asked about efforts to enforce the order, Bullock said businesses must agree to comply to receive grant assistance. He acknowledged that a judge last week dealt the state a legal setback in lawsuits against five Flathead County businesses accused of flouting public health measures. Bullock said he would be encouraged, however, if the lawsuits prompted the businesses to take more serious action.

"At the end of the day, that's all we want is for folks to comply," he said.

Starting Friday, public gatherings will be limited to 25 people when social distancing isn't practiced. Bullock also urged Montanans not to participate in private social gatherings of 15 or more people, as health experts have identified such gatherings as primary spreaders of the virus. Many worry cases will spike even higher as families from multiple households gather for Thanksgiving and Christmas.

Bullock set no expiration date on the new restrictions.

At least 543 people in Montana have died of COVID-19. The state reported 1,500 new cases Tuesday morning, including 140 in Flathead County, bringing the county's total number of active infections to 1,776.

"Positive cases in Montana and throughout the nation continue to soar to new levels not seen before," Bullock said. "Our health-care workers are exhausted, and hospital resources are becoming exhausted. In some places, we're already out of beds and room to put even new beds."

Bullock said the state is working to contract about 100 nurses and other health-care workers from around the country to assist overwhelmed hospitals that have sent employees home due to COVID-19 exposures and diagnoses.

As an example, Bullock said Kalispell Regional Medical Center was down 70 employees due to COVID-19, citing information from a meeting with hospital leaders. A Kalispell Regional spokeswoman didn't immediately confirm that figure Tuesday afternoon.

Bullock also expressed hope for two vaccines produced by pharmaceutical companies Pfizer and Moderna that are said to be roughly 90% and 95% effective, respectively. The state is working on securing cold storage for the vaccines and, if they are approved by the Food and Drug Administration, distribution to health-care workers and other high-priority groups could begin by the end of the year, he said.